For many years, I ran hot and cold on James McAvoy as an actor. In the early 2000s, I believed he was getting cast in roles I didn't think suited him, which wasn't necessarily his fault, but it soured me to his potential for a time. But it's tough to deny his effectiveness in such films as THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, RORY O'SHEA WAS HERE, ATONEMENT, and even as Mr. Tumnus in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. I think most of the world (including myself) is split on his work in WANTED, but I'm guessing if I revisited it today, I might see what he was going for a bit clearer than I did in 2008.
And although I wasn't sure he was right for the part when I first heard the casting news, it was his young and reckless take on Charles Xavier in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS that first made me see what this terrific and risk-taking actor was capable of, and I've been on board with his work (although not always his films) ever since. You don't need me to tell you what a huge hit X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST already is, and a large part of that is due to McAvoy's portrayal of a powerless, drug-addicted Xavier. But I've also been impressed with his choices in smaller films, including Danny Boyle most recent TRANCE from last year and the film that actually brought McAvoy and I together briefly for this interview, FILTH, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, in which McAvoy plays a drug-rattled corrupt cop in an aggressively nasty piece of work from director Jon S. Baird, who also adapted the book.
My time with McAvoy was brief, so I didn't get a chance to discuss with him a couple upcoming works, including the ambitious, epic relationship drama THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY, which is presenting the same story from three difference perspectives (of sorts): one from McAvoy's character's point of view (subtitled HIM); one from a character played by Jessica Chastain (HER); and a shorter, two-hour cut that combines the other two films (THEM). In 2015, McAvoy's portral of Victor Von Frankenstein will be seen in Paul McGuigan's FRANKENSTEIN (with Daniel Radcliffe as Igor). And of course, he's set to reprise his Xavier at least one more time in the 2016 release X-MEN: APOCALYPSE.
In our brief chat a couple weeks ago, McAvoy and I mostly focused on FILTH, a story that had long been considered an unfilmable one. I was still a couple weeks out from seeing the new DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, so it seemed pointless to dive into that, but I do wish I'd had time to talk a bit about this take on Frankenstein. Next time, hopefully. Please enjoy my talk with James McAvoy…
Capone: Hi James. How are you?
James McAvoy: I’m good, thanks. You?
Capone: Good. So what’s it like being in an un-filmable movie?
JM: [laughs] I’m proud of it. I’m proud that we managed to film it. Because that is one of those books that a lot of people argue that it’s his best book, but it is one of those things that people see as un-filmable. Yet un-filmable books have again and again proved to be really good and totally filmable. It just takes a lot of thought and takes a lot of wrangling, I think. And we had an incredible writer-director in Jon S. Baird, who really understood how to get the essence of what Irvine was doing in the book, but at the same time realize that it could never work exactly as is in the book on film. They're different mediums that require different things. For example, the book is very much about his physical state and his physical degradation, and doesn't really have that through-line that a movie needs. In the movie, he decided to concentrate far more on his mental deterioration, and he made the through-line of the movie, the narrative of the movie, really is about his crumbling mental state, which the book isn’t about. So we had an incredible director-writer who knew how to shape Irvine’s darkness and his hyper-real scenarios.
Capone: The more we learn about Bruce and his life at home, the more we understand just how severely broken he is. Even though the film is not about his physical degradation, it seems like it would be a physically exhausting thing to play. Was that the case?
JM: It was actually, yeah. There was a lot of sweat that went into it. But weirdly, artistically speaking, and intellectually and emotionally, it came out very easily. It was like, you know when you go to the gym and you do a really hard workout, or you play football and you work really really hard, but you play really well, but at the end, you are exhausted, but you still played really well? That’s what it felt like. I was exhausted at the end of it, but it all came out easily. It came out with a flow. And that was a testament to the script, I think, being the best script I'd ever read. Not just because of all the surprising elements in it, but I can understand him so much, and not just because of who he is, but because the quality of the writing.
Capone: As a Scotsman, tell me about the importance of Irvine Welsh in your life even prior to making this film?
JM: Yeah. Listen, he’s one of Scotland's most important writers. There’s nobody like him on the planet. The fact that he comes from Scotland is sort of irrelevant really. I think if he was born in some other county, he’d still write the same way. He’d have a different accent, but he’d have the same voice. But I think his writing for me was surprising, because I come from a kind of place like the places he writes about, yet I’d never seen my life and my neighborhood in that way. And I suppose it’s because he writes in such a hyper-real style that he picks the things that you take for granted, and he fucking magnifies them so much that it makes you start to view the world in which you live with more of an artistic eye, actually. That’s what he did for me really. He takes the kind of everyday, banal shit that you don't think is very interesting, and he really shows you just how interesting it is, actually.
Capone: Watching this film reminded me just how safe all other movies play it. Is that one of the reasons you love doing this, to be able to cut loose with almost no consequences?
JM: Yeah, getting to do something that, like you said, isn’t preoccupied with walking the safe path. So many movies and so many characters are, I think, pinned down by trying not to alienate an audience. They have their wings clipped almost. And this was the complete antidote and antithesis to this. So yeah, that was kind of exciting. But also to know that you’re doing that and to know that you were trying to alienate an audience at times and trying to push the audience away at times, that was because you were then going to try and get them back. So you were really playing with the audience's ability to stay with him. And at times, we are going to loose some people, but for those that we get back and then push away again and then get back and push away again, and then get back-- By the end of the movie, they’re going to be exhausted, I think. Some people do just shut off from the movie I think.
Capone: It’s extremely possible--some might say even likely--that some people will leave this film hating this character. But when you’re playing him, is it more important for us to like him or understand him?
JM: Yeah, understand, for sure. I don’t think anyone going to come away liking the character. What we’ve found, certainly in Britain anyway, is that people come away understanding the character, and as a result feeling empathy for him. Maybe not sympathy, but feeling empathy and being incredibly surprised that they have gone through 90 minutes of this movie, and at the end have had an emotional reaction to him that is the absolute opposite to the quite strong, visceral, emotional, and moral reaction they had to him in the first five minutes of this movie, which was, “Fuck this guy. Am I seriously going to sit and watch this shit for the next 90 minutes? I can’t watch a guy that blackmails 15-year-old girls into giving him blow jobs over the next 90 minutes and care.” And at the end, a lot of those people have cared. Some people still won’t. And that’s fine; I feel sorry for them. But most people have come out of there feeling quite shocked, and not necessarily at what happened on screen, but the fact that they give a shit at the end of the movie. But yeah, I don’t think that anybody’s going to come out liking him and going, “Yeah, I’d be his pal.” [laughs]
Capone: I don’t think anyone could ever accuse you of repeating yourself, in terms of the roles that you play. Is mixing it up and keeping that diversity something that you strive for, or have you just been lucky so far?
JM: It’s just lucky. It’s something that I’m interested in. It’s something that I strive for. The only thing that I see about my career in terms of re-treading similar steps is that maybe I’ve played a lot of nice guys. But other than that, yeah, you’re right. I feel like I’ve been able to keep learning because I’m not just treading over the same old ground. And that's what it is. You want to keep learning, because when you’re learning, you’re generally in a place where you're in uncharted territory, and therefore you’re more excited, you’re probably giving a more exciting performance, and you’re certainly learning, and that’s what it is for me. I enjoy learning on the gig. So yeah, I’m lucky. But you know, listen, if the rest of my career goes same old, same old the whole way through, I can’t complain. I’m just happy to be in work.
Capone: Let me ask you one X-MEN question just because I’ve got you here. I’m seeing the movie in a couple of weeks and I’m really excited about it. You’re officially on for the one after that, right?
JM: Yeah, as far as I can tell. I think it’s got a 2016 release date. So next year we’re going to go into it. I think summer of next year.
Capone: When you’re launching into these films, and they give you all these background material on these characters, did they give you the materials on these two story lines--Days of Future Past and Apocalypse? Because they are two of the most iconic of them all.
JM: I know, yeah. No, they didn’t. When they first approached me to play Charles, I don’t think they were thinking they were going to do DAYS OF FUTURE PAST or APOCALYPSE. I think they were thinking it’s a reboot, it’s a new thing, it’s a new deal, and then after FIRST CLASS, for whatever reason, they thought, “Alright, we’re going to do something even bigger.” And that’s cool, though. I’m really excited that they’ve got the balls to invest quite heavily in it, and really go for it, because DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and APOCALYPSE, they’re quite out there in terms of ideas and things. So it’s great fun for me. As long as they keep surprising me like that, I’ll be very happy.
Capone: Sounds good. James, thanks so much for talking and best of luck with this one.